Energy and the environment remain key sectors in the North East economy, but with developments often complex and costly, it is not an area without its challenges, reports ANDREW HEBDEN
From giant power stations to the roof of a family home – the signs of the renewable energy revolution taking pace are to be found all over the North East.
It’s not so long ago that the prospect of a householder in a region of the country not known for its tropical climate would have scoffed at the idea of powering their homes using solar panels attached to the roof. But now the sight of PV panels on housing developments all over the region is a common one.
And it is a development that the Government is evidently keen to support. In June this year, it published its new strategy to promote microgeneration and decentralised energy, aimed at making localised energy generation a real possibility for householders across the UK.
It published an action plan to help consumers, communities and businesses become renewable energy generators and outlined a vision of microgeneration as everyday energy technology in homes and workplaces.
There was also a pledge to cut the red tape often involved in the planning process for micro renewable energy schemes – part of controversial changes to the planning regime which have attracted criticism from the likes of the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England.
Critics claim that the changes will see the erection of some 4,500 wind turbines across the UK as the Government seeks to meet its climate change targets. The draft national planning framework states that local authorities should identify suitable areas for regeneration where it will be easier to get planning permission for wind farms.
Dr John Constable, director of the Renewable Energy Foundation, has welcomed the changes which he said would make it easier for developers to overcome local opposition.
“The UK’s planning system prevents development where the damage of the proposal exceeds the benefits,” he said. “It would be very foolish to distort the planning process as a quick fix for a broken energy policy or, worse still, to produce unsustainable flash-in-the-pan economic growth.”
Meanwhile, the drive to turn the banks of the River Tyne into a UK centre for the construction of offshore wind turbines suffered a setback last month. It had been hoped that American firm Clipper would spearhead the birth of a new industry in the area until its parent company UTC announced the plan had been scrapped.
As part of that plan Clipper was told £5m had been set aside by development agency One North East to help the firm in its plans to create more than 1,000 jobs, both at the site and in the wider supply chain.
But city leaders in Newcastle have vowed to fight to keep that money in the hope that it can help with other developments in the renewables sector.
One development that looks more likely to go ahead is the conversion of the vast Rio Tinto Alcan plant at Lynemouth in Northumberland.
Bosses at the plant say that unless the 630-job complex at Lynemouth switches from coal-fired to biomass generation for its power needs, it will cease to be economically sustainable.
It wants to switch to full biomass generation, an investment estimated to cost £50m, by April 2013.
The project was given the go-ahead by council planners earlier this month but the company remains in discussions with two potential bidders for the plant.